Stress and anxiety go together so often that the two terms are used interchangeably, but there are differences between the two. Stress is a normal bodily response cued by the brain and nervous system, and usually is triggered by an event or situation. Anxiety is a psychological condition that can develop when the stress response occurs too often, lasts too long, and is disproportionate to the situation.
Both stress and anxiety occur normally in people, but can become chronic in nature. Research indicates that stress is more likely to become chronic in nature when the situation triggering it is unpredictable and not within a person’s control, which is also true for anxiety disorders.1 When stress or anxiety become chronic, both can have similar detrimental effects on a person’s physical and mental health.
We’re going to do a deep dive on anxiety vs stress in this article, but some of you may enjoy the quick overview provided in this helpful from Michelle Risser, LISW-S:
What Is Stress?
Stress is a natural response to feelings of overwhelm, and can also be a response to positive changes. Stress triggers the fight or flight response. This tends to occur with a physical response as well, such as high blood pressure, tighter muscles, sweating, or being on high alert.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety can be similar to stress in a physiological way, however the way anxiety works in the body is different. Anxiety is a feeling that includes feelings of worry, tension, and uncertainty. Anxiety is linked to higher blood pressure as well, however anxiety can also be triggered.
Symptoms of Stress vs Anxiety
Stress is a normal human response to situations that are challenging, uncertain, or upsetting. Some signs of stress are a racing heartbeat, difficulty breathing, sweating, or dizziness. Anxiety is essentially a secondary stress response. Anxiety occurs when the fight or flight response is triggered by a “false alarm,” or when the response outlasts the situation causing the response.2
Symptoms of Stress vs Anxiety
|Symptoms of Stress*||Symptoms of Anxiety*|
|Racing heart||Mind racing or going completely blank|
|Difficulty breathing or hyperventilating||Nervousness and worrying that is hard to control|
|Sweating, hot or cold chills||Difficulty focusing or concentrating|
|Feeling shaky or unstable||Worst-case-scenario and “what-if” thinking|
|Feeling dizzy or head spinning||Feelings of dread or panic|
|Nausea, abdominal pain or upset stomach||Irritability or snappiness|
|Tense muscles||Feeling disconnected or “out of it”|
|Tightness or pain in the chest||Hypervigilance (over-aware of surroundings)|
|Feeling choked or suffocated||Feeling restless, jumpy, or on-edge|
|Tingling sensations||Exhaustion or fatigue|
|Restlessness or unstable surges of energy||Insomnia or feeling unrested after sleep|
*These are not comprehensive lists of possible symptoms. You should talk with your doctor about any symptoms you are experiencing.
Difference Between Stress and Anxiety
While stress and anxiety both are products of the same chain of events and create similar effects in the body, anxiety has a broader reach. Stress is a physiological response but anxiety is also psychological in nature.
Stress Is Usually Caused by External Factors
Stress tends to rise and fall according to external stressors, while this isn’t always the case with anxiety. Stress also describes more of a physiological response caused by the brain and nervous system, while anxiety is a psychological response that also includes changes in the way a person thinks, feels and behaves.2
Anxiety Is an Overreaction to a Situation
When exposed to a person, place, or situation, anxiety can emerge, but when it does, it could be a powerful overreaction to the situation. Ideally, someone would respond to all situations with a proportionate reaction, but anxiety can trigger a response that is too extreme for the setting.
Anxiety Can Cause an Inability to Function
When anxiety emerges, people try to find the proper response and reaction. At times, though, they become bogged down with indecision and are unable to act at all. This inability to function leaves someone feeling stuck and motionless in the face of adversity.
Anxiety Causes Unrealistic Feelings of Dread
Anxiety is usually experienced as fear or dread (which at low levels can feel like being nervous or worried, and at high levels feels like panic), while stress doesn’t always manifest this emotion. For some people, stress can just feel like being under pressure or feeling overwhelmed, especially at lower levels.
Specific Symptoms Are Signs of an Anxiety Disorder
Chronic anxiety is often an indication of an underlying condition. People struggling with an anxiety disorder often find that their symptoms worsen when they are under more stress, but can also experience symptoms when they are not under stress.
What Causes Stress and Anxiety?
Stress and anxiety can have similar causes. As a person is exposed to repeated stressors, they may eventually develop anxiety or an anxious disorder.
Some of the most common stress triggers include:
- Getting or losing a job
- Starting or ending a significant relationship
- Dealing with a death or disability
- Emerging or chronic health problems
- Trauma and traumatic events
Depending on the person and their form of anxiety, nearly everything could trigger an anxious response. Some of the most common anxiety triggers include:
- New people or social situations
- Public speaking
- A phobia trigger, like snakes, heights, or blood
- The thought of being judged by others
- The sense that things are out of place
Can One Turn Into the Other?
While stress can lead to anxiety or worsen existing anxiety, this isn’t true for all people. Some people who experience stress (even at high levels) do not develop symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety could be thought of as a more chronic stress response that tends to be easily activated but not easily deactivated. When the fight or flight mechanism remains activated for longer periods of time, there can be more complex reactions that occur.
How to Tell If You’re Experiencing Anxiety vs Stress
There is a lot of overlap between anxiety and stress, so it can be hard to know the difference.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to learn where you’re feeling anxious or stressed:
- When did I start feeling like this?
- Where does this feeling come from?
- Will this feeling go away if I resolve [work deadline, family obligation, etc]?
- If not, what does this mean for me?
- Am I feeling [frustrated, fatigued, etc] in proportion to what is happening?
- If not, did something trigger these exacerbated feelings?
- Do I always feel this way?
- When don’t I feel this way?
- How are these feelings impacting my day and life?
How to Manage Stress and Anxiety
Because stress and anxiety are so similar, the same coping skills and strategies are often helpful in reducing both. Because people experience stress and anxiety differently, the strategies that work for one person may not work for another. Sampling different strategies is often really helpful in identifying those that work best for you.
Those with high levels of stress and anxiety should seek professional treatment, but can still benefit from some of these strategies:4
Take Care of Your Body With Exercise & Sleep
Regular exercise helps to rebalance some of the hormones and chemicals associated with stress and anxiety, as well as providing a healthy outlet for restless energy that often is experienced by people who are stressed out or anxious.
Adequate sleep is essential for the brain and body, helping to restore balance, energy, mood, and improving all aspects of physical and cognitive functioning.
Start a Mindfulness Practice
Mindfulness and meditation are proven strategies to reduce stress and anxiety, and help train the mind to unhook from unhelpful thoughts and stories that feed into worry and stress. Grounding techniques can be helpful in the moment when anxiety or stress levels are heightened.
Don’t Shut Out Loved Ones – Embrace Your Support System
Social interactions are important for all aspects of physical and mental wellbeing, and have also proven to be important in helping people reduce stress and anxiety. Avoid giving in to the urge to withdraw and shut people out when you are going through difficult times.
Set Manageable Goals
Set goals and work towards them, which will help you feel a greater sense of purpose, control, and direction. Because stress and anxiety are often centered around current and future problems, setting and working towards goals helps people stay in touch with positive aspects of life and maintain hope for the future.
When to Seek Treatment
Whenever someone notices that anxiety has started to negatively interfere with their life, happiness, and functioning, it is time to seek professional treatment. A mental health expert or primary care physician can quickly assess the situation and recommend the best level of treatment to manage the condition.
In the best cases, the professional will normalize your experience and recommend a few lifestyle changes and natural remedies, but therapy and medications may be needed. There is no risk in getting help early, especially as anxiety tends to grow over time if it isn’t dealt with.
Treatment for Stress & Anxiety
While there is not an official diagnosis for chronic stress, many people experiencing it benefit from counseling. Because chronic stress is often a response to difficult life circumstances or transitions, people experiencing psychological effects of stress may be diagnosed with an adjustment disorder.
Those who are struggling with an anxiety disorder can also benefit from counseling, and sometimes also from medication. Certain types of counseling have been proven to be more effective in treating anxiety, including cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy, which is often used to treat PTSD, OCD, and phobias.2
Finding a Therapist
An online therapist directory can be helpful in finding a therapist, and the filters can be used to find therapists who specialize in these treatments for anxiety and who are in-network with certain insurance plans.
For Further Reading
- The American Institute of Stress: a website for information about stress, its effects on the mind and body, and an assessment to measure your stress levels.
- National Anxiety Foundation: a website providing free information about different kinds of anxiety disorders.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness: a foundation providing information, resources, advocacy and support for those struggling with mental illness
- Anxiety and Depression Association: a website with a wide range of information and resources for those struggling with different kinds of anxiety or mood disorders.
- Stress Management Books